Palestine: The challenges of the urban battle in Gaza: tunnels, hostages, tall buildings and civilian casualties | International

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An army, that of Israel. A guerrilla, Hamas. A scene, Gaza. All that is missing is the final order for the land invasion. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assures that it will take place, but he does not say when, how or on what scale. A new stage of the war will then open in which the urban areas of the Strip, one of the territories with the highest population density in the world (5,500 inhabitants per square kilometer), will be decisive. Israel has made it clear that it does not want to remain inside that hornet's nest, but rather to destroy the political and weapons structure of Hamas and then leave. Achieving it in a short period of time and with a reduced cost of lives is something that is beyond the predictions, according to the specialists consulted. In memory, battles such as Fallujah or Mosul, in Iraq, or, more recently, Mariupol and Kramatorsk, in Ukraine.

“Hamas is aware that it cannot defeat the Israeli army” despite its “primary weapon,” which is the underground network of tunnels and captured hostages, says John Spencer, a leading urban warfare expert and, for 25 years, a military officer in Hamas. infantry in the United States Army. His prediction, during a telephone interview, is a battle of weeks and probably months, which will leave Gaza City practically destroyed and thousands dead. On the ground, it will be necessary to deploy not battalions or brigades, but several divisions (more than 10,000 soldiers each), estimates Kobi Michael, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of National Security (INSS), a think tank. Israeli studies. “It will be a very expensive operation, but we have no choice but to go to the end” because “we are not going to return to the reality before October 7,” he adds, convinced that Israel is going to put an end to Hamas, at whatever price. after the ax blow that she dealt that day.

The Palestinian Red Crescent does not have a specific protocol in Gaza for when a military ground invasion occurs, according to its spokesman, Nebal Farsakh. “As a humanitarian organization we have many emergency plans and we contemplate different scenarios that we update every day,” but “what is happening right now in Gaza surpasses all of us, we have no response capacity, there is no plan to confront this destruction, this escalation and the blockade. The situation overwhelms us and breaks our hearts,” he explains over the phone.

Two other factors, in addition to the galleries dug underground, make this a different military operation from previous ones in the Palestinian enclave. On the one hand, the presence in Gaza, unprecedented until now in the conflict, of more than 200 hostages captured by Hamas in Israeli territory. On the other hand, the death of hundreds of militiamen, many of them the best trained, during the surprise attack, which triggered the current conflict and in which some 1,400 Israelis died.

Israel's military power, with 170,000 active members and a record 300,000 reservists mobilized for the occasion out of the 465,000 it has, is far superior to that of Hamas. The army also has very good technology, some 2,200 tanks - including the powerful Merkava IV - and a classic ally, the Gazan collaborators on the ground. The bombings on the Strip since October 7 have so far caused more than 7,300 Palestinian deaths. Despite everything, to support the invasion, the Pentagon has sent a team of military advisors to Israel, with a three-star general at the helm, with experience in urban battles such as those in Mosul or Fallujah, in Iraq, as published this Wednesday by the diary Financial Times.

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Faced with this arsenal of the Israeli army, the militia has been able to prepare and equip itself with the help of Iran, its livelihood, and has bomb drones, more modern rockets and, we must not forget, “people willing to die,” Spencer details. . “They are willing to sacrifice themselves and fight until the end,” comments Kobi Michael in the same vein in a telephone conversation from Cyprus, where he is trapped by the air traffic problems that the war has generated in Israel. Therefore, the Israeli army has no choice but to “saturate” Gaza with soldiers.

Spencer estimates that Hamas can count on up to 30,000 men today, compared to 5,000 in previous conflicts. Despite all the losses suffered, it is “a great unknown” what can happen. It is also an advantage for the defending side to wait for the enemy on its own terrain, which it knows well and where it moves like a fish in water. In this sense, the fact that they can keep the kidnapped people in the tunnel system will prevent, in principle, the Israelis from destroying the underground galleries with blood and fire.

This network, popularly known as the “subway,” is, along with the time they have gained, the “primary weapon” of the Islamist militia, which allows them to develop “guerrilla tactics,” the American analyst understands. According to Spencer, Hamas has had many years to prepare for this moment, since in previous invasions, such as those in 2008 and 2014, Israeli troops “did not go deeper into urban areas.” Now, “it's a different fight, they need to clear the city. Enter, destroy the tunnels, the missiles, the Hamas military leaders and their fighters.”

The defense of Hamas

But this fort “in hiding” forces “a completely different fight because Hamas can escape many of the bombings” and “aerial intelligence,” according to this veteran analyst of the Iraq war. The militants have had “a lot of time” to prepare with the network of tunnels and booby-trapped explosives, agrees Yaakov Katz, defense analyst and former military correspondent for the newspaper. Jerusalem Postwhile warning of the “cynical use” that they will probably make of civilians as “human shields.”

A militiaman from the armed wing of Hamas, at the entrance to a tunnel in the Strip, last July.SOPA Images (SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett)

“We have to deal with the fact that it is underground where the military infrastructure and most of the Hamas terrorists, their leaders, their decision-making capacity and their weapons are,” Michael maintains, “and I assume along with the hostages.” “We not only have to reach the last grenade launcher, the last Kalashnikov or the last terrorist, the determining factor will be to reach its center of gravity,” continues the INSS expert. In any case, he maintains, “we have to be very careful because they are going to be waiting for us with traps and we must surprise them,” he warns.

The challenge of completely ending the fundamentalist militia is difficult to achieve, the experts consulted acknowledge. “Eradicating Hamas is a great challenge and is something complicated to define exactly (...) What Israel can do most in practice is to reduce Hamas' capabilities as well as kill or capture as many fighters as possible and destroy its military infrastructure. That is, they are not capable of repeating what they did on October 7,” says Katz via email, without ruling out that as long as there are members alive, the organization can re-emerge.

“The fundamental differentiating factor of the Gaza urban battlefield is the third dimension: underground tunnels, tall buildings and intense drone warfare above,” advances Michael Knights, an analyst at the think tank The Washington Institute. “Hamas will take the underground war to new extremes,” he continues in an email exchange. According to Knights' estimate, the 9,000 deaths recorded in the battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2017 against the Islamic State could be exceeded in Gaza.

Preparatory raids

Israel, Spencer adds, “is not only going to need its military capabilities” but also “the [información de] intelligence” and “bribes” to the local population to buy information and put the kidnapped people at risk as little as possible. Qatar is the pivot on which negotiations to advance the releases revolve, although so far Hamas has only released four women. “We have to assume that not everyone is going to make it out alive,” admits Michael, who is also a professor at the British University of South Wales. John Spencer remembers, without mentioning him by name, the case of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who remained kidnapped in Gaza for five years until he was exchanged for a thousand Palestinian prisoners. Hamas has come to ask these days for the release of 6,000 prisoners from Israeli prisons in exchange for the more than 200 it has.

In addition to clearing the ground with airstrikes, Israel has carried out several raids, especially in the last three days, led by columns of its tanks. It is about testing the terrain by carrying out intelligence work with which to find out the positions of the enemy, whether military or their commanders, or possible places where they could hold hostages, as well as eliminate possible front-line anti-tank weapons and leaders of the fundamentalist militia. The aerial bombardments will not stop once the ground troops have penetrated, Spencer assures. It will be the turn of more controlled attacks, from a lower height thanks to drones, helicopters or planes that can fly lower.

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